How to Get Unstuck and Writing Again

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  I had a problem that I couldn't shake.

See, I played soccer with all my buddies growing up, and I was pretty good. But in three years I hadn’t scored a single goal. It was eating at me to the point where it was all I could think about. I never mentioned it to anyone, but I was beating myself up three times as week.

Then one brilliant, late summer day playing on a field right in the middle of the city, I launched a ball into the right corner of the net for my first goal. What made it more dramatic was that it was on a free kick, so I got to run around like a maniac with my hands in the air and no one else around me. I’d finally done it. The monkey was off my back.

So, you know what happened after I scored that goal? I scored another, then another. I had three in that one game. Call me "butter" because I was on a roll. As the season progressed, I became one of the top scorers on our team, and goals were commonplace to me. I went from beating myself up over not scoring to expecting to score. This went on for years.

You’re probably wondering what in the hell my soccer antics as a kid has to do with the writing slump you’re stuck in. A lot, really.

It just took that one goal to clear my mind and get back to having fun and playing my ass off. I was thinking about it too much, and as Bruce Lee says, “if you think too much about a thing, it’ll never happen.” My one action unleashed a series of reactions that completely turned me around. I relaxed, got my confidence back and quit pressing.

When you’re mired in a writing slump, only one thing will bring you out of it and cruising again, and that’s publishing something. Anything. Just get something out on your blog, on Medium or wherever your work lives. Hell, even send it to your mom. Never underestimate the power that comes from finishing something. Finishing one thing is more powerful than starting 1,000.

Once you finish a piece and watch it live outside your computer, you’ll want that feeling again, and again. So publish something — anything. It can be a 200 word thought, a poem, or a thank you letter to your greatest writing influence. Just get it out into the world and get the feeling of accomplishment back. You’ll quickly follow it up again, again. Maybe not as fast as my goals, but you never know. In fact, the story you’re reading right now is my slump-buster. Can’t wait to see what follows.

image by Toronto History via CC by 2.0

8 Laws Santa Shamelessly Breaks Every Year

(This piece I wrote first appeared on the Avvo Naked Law Blog.)

Image from: Avvo Naked Law Blog

While Santa is universally loved, he’s gotten sloppy over the past few years. It’s time to look at the big picture and tally up the damage he does each Christmas Eve as he goes about his business, largely unchecked.

Here are eight laws Mr. Kringle brazenly flaunts each year—it’s time to call him out!

1) Breaking and entering St. Nick’s going down the chimney for a reason—all the doors and windows in your house are locked. Milk and cookies could look like entrapment, but who’s to say they weren’t left there for dear ol’ dad, who’s up until two in the morning putting that %$#@ bike together?

2) Disturbing the peace The thud of Santa landing on your roof, the din of eight tiny reindeer all snorting and stamping their hooves, and the cacophony all those jingling bells makes you long for the days when your teenage neighbor’s death metal band practiced in the garage.

3) Drinking and driving The adults know how he really got that red nose, and it’s not just from the cold. There have been longstanding rumors in the elf community the Big Man knocks back a few cocktails with his chief of staff (Mrs. Claus) before takeoff.

4) Breaking labor laws Those poor elves. Unrealistic daily quotas on Etch A Sketches, backbreaking hours, no overtime or holiday pay, and watered-down cocoa in the break room. Look for the elves to revolt and unionize in the summer of 2016.

5) Violating FAA regulations If your drone needs to be registered with the FAA, that giant sleigh darn well ought to be, too. And records show that no flight plan has ever been filed by a “Kris Kringle.”

6) Computer Hacking How else does Santa know who’s naughty or nice? That’s inside information, especially with most kids staring at the screen 23 hours a day. Don’t underestimate the elf in glasses—he knows his way around a keyboard and your Wi-Fi network.

7) Reckless driving No one can go 500 mph in a residential area and get away with it. Kringle came dangerously close to being taken down by a neighborhood watch group in ’05.

8) Property damage Those shingles weren’t falling off your roof before his 1,000-pound sleigh landed with a clunk. And they don’t fix themselves.

Bonus: Reindeer poop all over yours and your neighbor’s property violates every homeowner association bylaw in the land. Go make a citizen’s arrest, or at least leave a really nasty note on Santa’s sleigh.

The Definitive List of Steve Martin's Best Movies

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As someone who came of age in the 80’s, I worshiped at the altar of two people who made you laugh no matter what they did. One was Bill Murray, and the other was Steve Martin.

Just thinking of them in compared to anyone else in movies today leaves me a little sad at how far comedy has fallen. Judd Apatow and his crew are giving it their best shot, and it’s appreciated. The writing is good, but the acting falls enormously short. With that in mind, it was time for the definitive list of Steve Martin's best movies, which are also his funniest. I just finished Steve’s latest book, “Born Standing Up” about his days as a stand-up comic. We tend to forget about him on stage, but he was the most successful stand-up in history (at the time).

The book takes you through how he crafted his act from magic and old fashion drama to filling 20,000 seat arenas with an arrow through his head. While it takes a bit of the mystery out of his brilliance, it does prove that stand-up comedy is the toughest thing a performer can do. It also shows that success comes to those that work their butt off and never take no for an answer.

The book also delves into his troubling family life and just briefly touches on his movie success. The Jerk is the only movie that he really gets into with any depth since it was his first and was the one that catapulted him to fame. He also helped write it as well, and you must have admiration for that.

If you’re a fan of Steve’s or just a fan of comedy, it’s a good read and well worth the time. If you’d like to keep the mystery a mystery, then maybe just go rent the Jerk.

While there are a lot of great movies from Steve, here are my top five.

1) The Man with Two Brains

By far the most underrated comedy of our time. It blurs the line between slapstick and absurd and is so funny because Steve plays it straight, which is brilliant. His character, Dr. Hfuhruhurr invented the screw-top method of brain surgery and fell in love with the brain of Anne Uumellmahaye. Merv Griffin is the elevator killer. I mean, what’s not to like?I love this exchange he has with a reporter who is interviewing him for a story:

Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr: Would you read that last bit back to me? I’m afraid it might make me sound pompous to your readers. Olsen: ‘My brilliant research in brain transplantation is unsurpassed, and will probably make my name live beyond eternity’. Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr: Oh, no, no; that’s good. But take out the ‘probably’. It makes me sound wishy-washy.

The real genius is how straight he plays it, this clip is a great example:

 

The brilliance of Steve Martin can be summed up with the bunny ears. He plays it so straight I can barely control myself. I mean, who puts bunny ears on the world’s most famous brain surgeon? Oh yeah, Guererro.

2) Roxanne

While this doesn’t have one great joke after another like the Three Amigos or The Jerk, it holds up best. For some reason, I’ve come back to this movie the most in the 21 years since it came out. It has a little something for everyone and still packs the punch of laughter. He also wrote the screenplay for this one.

C.D. Bails: “It must be so nice to be able to smell the coffee … in Brazil.”

 

3) Planes, Trains & Automobiles

This movie has become an annual classic in our family on Thanksgiving. It’s vintage John Hughes with the funniest scenes you ever witnessed followed by true emotion. Every time I see Del Griffith sitting at the train station with nowhere to go, I get a little something in my eye. I really miss John Candy.

Neil Page: “When you tell these stories, here’s an idea: have a point!”

 

4) The Jerk

Steve’s signature movie. It’s also the one that put him on the map and got terrible reviews from almost every critic who saw it. This is by far his best movie if you're looking for one joke after another. It has to be one of the most quoted movies in history.

Navin R. Johnson: “I was born a poor black child …”

 

5) The Three Amigos

The brilliance is in its absurdity. If you don’t get it, you probably take life a little too seriously. Has there been a better character name than “Lucky Day?"

Lucky Day: "In a way, each of us has an El Guapo to face. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo. For us, El Guapo is a big, dangerous man who wants to kill us. But as sure as my name is Lucky Day, the people of Santa Poco can conquer their own personal El Guapo, who also happens to be the actual El Guapo!"

 

"Steve Martin" by Towpilot - Own work licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons and photo by A. Currell via C.C. BY- SA 2.0

The Dark Side of Writing and a Creative Life

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As a writer, you’ve felt fear, rejection, insecurity, lack of follow-through, procrastination, and resistance. Each one hits like a truck, trying to ruin your creative dreams. They’re in your way every day and are all members of a soul-crushing group that I refer to as “the dark side” of creativity. The worst aspect of the dark side is that you feel alone as you battle. You’re not alone … we all fight the fight.

I published my first article when I was 17, have been read by millions and been on national TV and radio. I’ve also created content strategies and built platforms for millions more, but I still struggle with all these things. Actually, I struggle more now than I ever have.

Self-doubt, resistance, fear of looking dumb and the discipline to move from idea to execution haunt me. Some days it’s worse than others, but I’ve found ways to conquer each when the battle arises. Although the war never ends.

Even the big dogs have these problems. You’d assume once an author has sold millions of books that the dark side of creativity and writing would just melt away. Right? Wrong. Check out this story from Salon about famous authors such as Jonathan Franzen and Elizabeth Gilbert, who think they suck most of the time. It’s eye-opening since most of us believe these feelings would go away after so much success. But it doesn’t.

The author of the piece Michele Filgate has a great line that sums up the origin of these issues, “Writing, in fact, provides a much-needed escape or confrontation with our worst emotions.”

Confronting your emotions is scary stuff, and most people don’t have to do it at work like writers and other creatives do. Most writers and other creative people generally just feel too much. It’s why their work is so life-changing.

Resistance

Resistance seems to be the toughest one to overcome. Author Steven Pressfield who wrote the manifesto on this subject, The War of Art owns this term and defines it as anything that stands in the way and stops us from doing what we really want — or need to do. It could be writing a book, starting a business, writing a blog or painting your masterpiece. His book helps conquer the enemy within. I refer to it whenever I need a little motivation or feel like I just can’t get going. What everyone needs to know is how to beat it. Pressfield answers that with his greatest quote:

“When it’s more painful not to do what you’re meant to than to just do it."

While most blogs about writing and creating mostly focus on how to get published or the inspirational parts of the craft (“write every day!”), I’m zeroing in on how you can drive through these painful barriers that you usually face alone. The fear of looking dumb after putting your work out there is a very real thing, but something that you can tame. You can also do wonders when adding a little discipline to your work, like scheduling your time and organizing your ideas. The dark side of creativity is scary, but there are weapons you can use (like these).

Maybe the best line from the Salon piece by Filgate is easy for me to identify with after my current struggles with procrastination, and I’m sure you can identify with it too:

“My bedroom is the most organized when I’m on deadline."

(photo by Neal Sanche via Creative Commons)

Are we not men? Or... the time I got my ass kicked by a piece of cheese

We're total wussies these days. I look back at my grandfather's era and those guys were tough. If they got hurt it was because they were doing something manly like cutting wood and the axe caught their leg during their twelfth hour of chopping. They rubbed some dirt in it, spit and cut another cord. Not us. We complain and take medications for everything.

The reason for this post is that I wounded my finger yesterday and now it's swollen and hurts like hell. How it happened is shameful, but what the hell. I'll you anyway.

I was unloading the dishwasher and a piece of cheese had melted and dried onto a bowl. I started picking it a little and it didn't budge. It was baked on like no one's business. So I started getting into it - hard. Nothing. So now it's more about not letting this piece of cheese beat me than it is about getting the bowl clean. I changed my stance, got some leverage and let 'er rip with the same aggressiveness that my dog goes after his balls. And what happens? The cheese finally comes off, slides right under my fingernail with maximum force, and slices the hell out of the skin right under the nail. It's like a paper cut under your fingernail, and it hurt like a bitch. I dug the cheese out, ran some cold water on it, and went about my day.

The cheese wasn't going down without a fight; the throbbing actually woke me up that night. My cut had gotten worse and by the next day my finger was swollen and didn't look right. Who the hell has ever been taken down by cheese? Ham ... maybe, but not cheese for Christ sake. My wife said it could be infected. How could it be infected? My first big injury of the year is being cut by cheese? As I was drowning it in antibacterial rinse I thought to myself, "This is terrible, what kind of a man would even admit to an injury like this?" Then I remembered all the athletes who have missed games for ridiculous things, such as:

Wade Boggs got hurt putting his cowboy boots on. Ken Griffey Jr. missed a game after pinching his balls in his cup. Sammy Sosa threw his back out by sneezing. John Smoltz once burned his chest while ironing his shirt ... he was still wearing it. Terry Mullholland went on the DL after scratching his eye on a feather ... that was hanging out of his pillow.

I feel a tad better now, but I do wish we had something other than Scooby-Doo band-aids.

9/11 Tribute: The Smartest Person I've Ever Met

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For a guy who was probably closer to being a Sweathog than ever being on the dean’s list, I’ve been around some insanely smart people. Not like the kid in your middle school who carried a briefcase, but world-changing smart. I’ve seen Bill Gates give talks at Microsoft, along with Steve Ballmer, CEO’s, tech Gods, and I even helped stream Steve Job’s keynote in 2001. But only one guy left my mouth hanging wide open. Before my stint at Microsoft, I was hired by Akamai Technologies as a Digital Content Project Manager in early 2000 to integrate media from partners such as Microsoft and Apple on their network, and also stream live events. They were tech darlings and their reputation for world-changing technology may only have been equaled by the fact that they blew through money faster than John Candy blew through Ding-Dongs. My short time of at the company left a huge impression on my life. Partly because it was the first time I was left in charge of anything important, but also because of Danny Lewin, the CTO, and co-founder. He was the heart and soul of the company and had a rare combination of mathematical genius, business acumen, and world-changing ideas.

He was also the first person to die on 9/11.

Danny was about my age, but that was about all we had in common. He was on a different level. While I didn’t have any real relationship with him, I tried to chat him up when the big-wigs came across the country to speak to our group and glean anything I could. Generally, I like to play the cynic when it comes to book-smart in the business world. After working in the real world for a couple decades, you learn that stuff like GPAs and where you went to school means next to nothing. And partly because I sucked at school. But when Danny Lewin gave us his famous talk that he used when he pitched venture capitalists called, “How the Internet Works (it was much more like a Ph.D. class).” I was floored.

He spoke in a way most geniuses usually don’t. He knew exactly zero of us were as smart as he was, but explained complicated algorithms, load balancing and other crazy stuff he cooked up in a way that even a guy who flunked out of high school geometry (actually, I dropped it) not only understood, but was able to explain and apply. That’s true brilliance: being able to explain what’s in your head in a way others not only understand, but can act on. And when he spoke, his passion for math and his company infected you. And not in a rah-rah, bullshit way. In a way that says, “the world has no idea what we’re capable of, and you’re going to help us get there." At one point I was actually reading network white-papers on my commute. Me, a writer and content guy. I wanted to know more and was proud to be a part of it (side note: I heard about 20 of those speeches in the five years that followed and exactly none inspired me to even stay after 5 PM).

I saw Danny give that talk three different times and took crazy notes, scribbling faster than Bukowski after his 23rd drink. He also told us stories of hardware companies coming in to sell their boxes and his guys (hackers who barely spoke) would physically tear their computers to shreds to show how shitty they were. They didn't meet our standards.

So, needless to say, I was already blown away by the guy. Then I learned the rest of his story as he was buying drinks at a Vegas off-site (that deserves its own post. Two people I worked with got married on that business trip. And they weren’t dating). After others had been sufficiently “loosened up” by a little Vegas juice, the stories started flying. The reaction to each one was either: “no fucking way,” or “are you serious?”

I’m not going to get into all of it, but sufficed to say that not only was he in the top of his mathematics program at MIT, he was also an Israeli Commando. Yes, you read that right, an Israeli Commando. His family had moved to Israel when he was 14, and not only did he complete his military service, he joined one of the most elite counterterrorism units of the Israel Defense Force (IDF). I’ll let you look them up on your own. The stories were buzzing about 100-mile marches through the desert in full dress and all kinds of other stuff people like us couldn’t do. Now, he wasn’t just a brilliant math and technology mind, he was Rambo.

Put all that together with the fact that he was still young, a little intimidating, could talk circles around most of Silicon Valley, had a loving family and had founded a company that had changed the Internet using his algorithms. Not bad. There were only two things in his way. One was that the Internet bubble had burst with such force that companies were disappearing faster than Miley Cyrus’s morals, and … 9/11.

I didn’t even have time to decide what to eat for breakfast on 9/11/2001 before the world changed. My family slept as I watched everything unfold on TV a coast away. Numb. One of my main jobs at Akamai was making sure my content partner’s video streams, such as MSNBC, were up and running. 24 hours a day. That meant calls at 4 AM if something went sideways. Not only did the world go sideways on 9/11, so did the Internet.

While Akamai’s technology helped “unclog” the Internet in the early days, this was different. Everyone jumped on to gather as much information as possible. It was the first time the infrastructure of the Internet was put to the test for something important. Not a basketball game or a movie release. This was real.

I was on a conference call later that morning to plan how in the world we could accommodate millions of people using our technology to try and understand why their world was crumbling when they told us the news. They thought Danny Lewin was on American Flight 11. The first plane. They were just waiting for confirmation. The company that had to keep the Internet propped up and information flowing for the country had just lost its heart.

The next few days were a blur. Danny’s memorial service was streamed inside the company and it was the first time I really heard, first-hand, what it was like to live with the constant threat of terrorism as his family spoke about living with it daily in Israel. It was sad, unfair, and his young kids were robbed of their dad.

Over the next few months, the stories trickled out about what happened aboard the plane, you can read about it across the web. There’s even a book out about him. It’s all hard to read.

In the months that followed, the company had to reorganize, and like most others at that time it meant layoffs. Lots of them. I was proud to have lasted until the 8th round and actually fired myself after there was no one left to tell me I was out of a job. I’ll never forget the look on the poor HR girl’s face when I walked in and said, “I’m Craig Playstead and I’m here to fire myself.” It was part horror, a dash of confusion with just a whisper of shame.

The company saw the stock price go down to around $2 a share from a high of over $300, but stayed afloat. They recovered by focusing on security, helping many government agencies secure themselves after 9/11. In the decade that followed, they’ve built a great company that you use all the time, but never know it.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Danny Lewin would have gone down in the same breath as the tech titans of today if he were still around. Zuckerberg, The Google Twins, Gates, the list goes on. He was in that league. While the world didn’t get to listen to his talks on a grand scale, they felt his work when they listened to Steve Jobs introduce the iPhone or found a date on Match.com.

The imprint he left on me still burns. He stoked the fire and woke a curiosity and love of technology in me. While Zuckerberg has given endless pictures of fringe friends at nameless pumpkin patches, he gave birth to a huge part of my career.

Story originally published in 2014

photo courtesy Dr. Wendy Longo CC BY-ND 2.0

 

Moving Up Is Not Graduating

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It's not a graduation. He is moving from the 4th grade to the 5th grade. It's psychotic!  They keep creating new ways to celebrate mediocrity

 - Mr. Incredible

Moving up is not graduating. You don't "graduate" from the 4th grade.

Let me back up. Not long ago, I figured out that I played a total of 44 sports seasons growing up. That's every sport, each season from five years old through high school  (Not a great career, but no one worked harder, made better friends or had more fun.).

I earned two trophies. Two (And honestly, one was for Punt, Pass & Kick which we took very seriously in 1979).

I loved those trophies because they meant something. I earned them for getting to the top of a mountain that took a lot of hard work, long tube socks, sweat, and tears. (Sometimes I cried when I lost.) It took my oldest son two years to get two trophies. He beat me by 42 seasons. There's something wrong with how we're doing things.

We need to stop praising mediocrity. This is the perfect time for this conversation because it's graduation season. Graduation is a huge milestone in what will hopefully be a long and interesting life. Don't undervalue it, but we all need to agree on what graduating means.

There are only two graduations in your life: high school and college. That's it -- that's the list. Every other time you move up a grade, it's called ... "moving up." And if you don't move up you're a

Photo by Doc Gratis

"Sweat-Hog." I'm not trying to be mean, it's a fact. If your son or daughter moves from elementary school to middle school, that's a big deal, but it's not a graduation. Pat them on the back, take them to dinner, but don't treat it like it's a major accomplishment. It's what's expected of them, and that bar is set very low.

We continue to praise mediocrity and what's expected out of people, and it deludes true accomplishment. You don't get success in life by doing what's expected of you. You only excel when you do something above what's expected of you. That's the only way you get promoted in the business world -- not when you do just do your job, but when you go above and beyond. No one should ever be rewarded simply for showing up. Can you imagine being recognized at work because you showed up that day? Or getting a trophy because you finished a yoga class? That's what we're doing to our kids with participation trophies and made-up graduations.

To be honest, it's part of the problem with our country. We're not striving for greatness anymore. Instead, we're attempting to make everyone feel good (and compose the best text message with only 65% of the words misspelled.). We need to dig down deeper and start dominating again.

Encourage your kids to work hard and praise the hard work ... even when they fail. But stop praising things that they're expected to do if you want to raise strong, prideful people. And if you're raising a "Sweat-Hog" that's okay too.

Even Juan Epstein had a mom.

Follow me on Twitter @playstead for great tips, and a few laughs.

 

 

photo by Michael Bentley (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Storytelling and Writing Tips from Cameron Crowe

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I’ll read or watch anything Cameron Crowe has done and always soak in any storytelling or writing tips he has. At this point, I feel like I owe it to him after all the years of great movies, books, and writing - even if I have to endure a few duds (see: Elizabethtown). One could argue there's a lifetime of debt for Lloyd Dobbler alone. Few have reached this status of loyalty with me, but Cameron has earned it. It also doesn’t hurt that he was married to one of my all-time crushes: Nancy Wilson, of Heart (she was a rockstar when it wasn’t cool for girls to be rockstars). Cameron recently shared some thoughts on writing on Sirius/XM, and I was transcribing feverishly as the master spoke.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High - The Book

My introduction to Cameron was a little different than most who got to know him from his movies that made you laugh, think, and feel something. I read Fast Times at Ridgemont High when the book came out before ever seeing the movie that changed the game across multiplexes across America. I'd never read anything like it when it came out. It also kickstarted the genre of raunchy, teen, rated R movies. The best part is that 35 years later it still sits atop of the mountain.

Cameron recently wrote a feature on flavor-of-the-month, Harry Styles for Rolling Stone (for a background on his music journalism, see: Almost Famous). He was on the Rolling Stone radio show on Sirius/XM with some of the editors of the magazine and dropped some interesting thoughts on writing and how he views the different types of work he does. While his movies are household names, he also wrapped up a season of Roadies for Showtime recently, adding TV to his resume.

"It's all journalism."

He was asked if the approach for his feature writing as he does for Rolling Stone is any different than his approach or for screenwriting projects. Does one help the other?

- Crowe said, "It’s the same thing — it’s just journalism. You’re just trying to catch what was in the room. For a feature story, what are the candles, what’s the scent, what’s on the wall? For a screenplay: tell a story, pay attention to what people are wearing, what the room looks like. All your doing is trying to capture life. Whether it’s a story about Harry Styles or a movie [you're writing]. To me, that all comes from detail and journalism. It's all about detail. It’s all journalism."

What I took away from what he said was to work more on the setting and the details. Bring the reader into the room with you, which helps bring feeling to a piece, which is what we're all going for anyway. We want readers to feel something when they read our writing.

And the most important thing Cameron mentioned that I wholeheartedly agree with after decades of writing:

 "Rewriting is the key to writing.”

It’s right in line with Hemingway’s famous quote about writing: "Every first draft is shit.” This is where the heavy lifting in writing comes in. Rewriting over and over again, which is grueling and can be defeating. Cameron also mentioned he had a draft of a screenplay he’s currently working on that’s in the neighborhood of 278 pages. Your garden variety two-hour movie script is around 120 pages. He has some slight tweaking to do.

After all the movies, awards, TV shows, and accolades you can tell Cameron still loves writing about music for Rolling Stone over 40 years after he started. Almost like he’d do it now for free … almost.

The great philosopher, Lloyd Dobbler.

photo by GabboT via CC BY-SA 2.0